Enter Cross-Channel Proactive Customer Engagement

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As an analyst, I spend a good part of my time evangelizing on how outbound calling is no longer the evil that brought forth the term "robocall," but instead has greatly changed in form and function. I've encountered an increasingly healthy number of proactive business engagements, that, quite frankly, I find useful, and make me feel good about being a customer. In fact, as I sat down to write this column, I got an outbound call from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, asking if I'd like to renew my membership. Yes, it was a sales call, but one the aquarium got right, as it was both informative and engaging. And that is a welcome change from the past.

Poorly thought-out proactive customer contact (PCC) just shouldn't happen anymore.

Very simply, what used to be predictive dialing, with the goal of collections, sales, and announcements, has gone through an industry-wide metamorphosis to become "proactive customer engagement." Consumer preferences have pushed the contact center industry to rapidly expand the number of contact channels customers can use to reach out to—and be reached out to by—an enterprise. Beyond the classic voice, email, and Web channels are chat, SMS, and social media. Not surprisingly, the tsunami of mobile device adoption has opened the doors to an entirely different level of customer interaction, adding features such as speech technologies, video, and geolocation to customer care solutions.

However, I would have to agree with one of my fellow Speech Technology columnists, who pointed out recently that a problem still exists, with both inbound and outbound calls.

Poorly designed inbound IVR applications, particularly those with speech, can have the unwanted effect of completely turning customers off, transforming what should be customer service into an annoying chore. Repeated prompts, speech recognition that doesn't recognize you, awful music on hold, and irritating, repetitious messages are just a few of the design issues that have been plaguing the self-service market for decades. Yes, decades.

So despite the existence of all the great inbound applications that are out there from companies that get it, there are still many that fall short. With PCC, the issue becomes even more complicated, as companies are contacting customers on the customers' time and dime, and hoping they react positively. They need to get it right.

This means taking advantage of outbound dialing technology that takes into account customers' preferences, from the channel on which they want to be contacted to the time of day they want this to happen, if they even want to be contacted at all. If you are a bank alerting customers when a threshold has been reached in an account, know that the customer wants a text, email, or some other form of alert, and then let him do something about the event. If you're an airline, don't delight customers whose flight has been cancelled by proactively offering a seat upgrade on their next flight and then dropping them into the beginning of the IVR menu. Place them where they should be, so that they can complete the transaction quickly, then go back to what they were doing before you contacted them. Are you a pharmacy alerting customers that they have a prescription refill available? Let them refill in a word or a dial press, but provide them with the option of connecting to a pharmacist right then, or with a scheduled callback if they require it.

Provide customers with the option to channel hop if they want. For example, if you contact them through the Web and they want to chat or talk directly to an agent, allow them to do this seamlessly, with all contextual information passed to the next channel. Let's get past making customers repeat or re-enter information, particularly if we contact them first. Finally, and it should go without saying, always let them get to that agent if they really want to. We all know that proactive customer contact will reduce costs by reducing inbound calls, but if they need to call, let them. The real payoff comes with satisfied, repeat customers.

Nancy Jamison is a principal analyst for contact centers at Frost & Sullivan. She can be reached at nancy.jamison@frost.com, or follow her on Twitter @NancyJami.

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